empathy art

i spent some time over the weekend creating response art, or empathy art, for my art therapy clients. empathy, of course, is the idea of sharing the feeling of another — to feel with, or to feel alongside someone else. empathy art (which can be called “response art” interchangeably) is defined by art therapist joanne kielo as “post-session artwork created by the art therapist to develop empathic capacity with a client, responding silently by rendering feelings into form.” this sort of practice is not only useful for therapist-client relationships, but it can also be very helpful for both parents and children.

empathy art sample, january 2012

when an art therapist shares their response art with a client, it can deepen the relationship in that the client can “feel seen” and witnessed in a concrete way. many times, response art can be made in the “handwriting” of the client, so to speak. meaning, it is often done in the style and/or with the symbols the client has brought into their own art process in therapy. [i talk more about this idea of using another’s artistic “handwriting” in the guest post i wrote for the kiwi crate blog, here.]

empathy art sample, september 2004

the practice of creating empathy art can also be healing for the art therapist, and regarded as a form of self-care. art therapist bruce moon supports the idea that empathy art helps the therapist to clarify feelings, release affect, and allows a therapist to metaphorically exhale images s/he may have “inhaled” in during a therapy session.

empathy art sample, fall 2004

another function of empathy art is that it can be gifted to a client when it is time to end the therapeutic relationship. in this way, the art serves as a beautiful transitional object and a container for the symbol of the therapist’s presence and support.

empathy art as a transitional object, summer 2011

similar to therapy, parenting is an act of helping and of caregiving. because i wear both of these hats, i sometimes bring the self-care work i have learned in my profession into my home life as a mom. making my own art in the brief quiet spaces, as a way to respond to a situation that arose in the day or to a particular piece of my journey as a mom, has been very healing for me.

empathy art sample, spring 2010

on the flip-side, making empathy art for my daughter has helped her to feel supported. N was having some ongoing health issues over the winter, and she was expressing them through her art work. one day, i sat down beside her while she was making art and sketched a quick piece of empathy art that wove some of my daughter’s own symbols into my image below. when i gave her this picture, she said, “it makes me feel strong!” and she hung it in her bedroom.

"air spirit" - response art for daughter, winter 2011.

i share this with you to pass along one technique i bring from my professional life into my personal life as a mom. the idea of self-care for moms is one of great interest to me as an art therapist and, of course, as a mom. i see also how sharing visual responses with a client or a child can deepen connection.

even if you have not called it “empathy art” in the past, i’m thinking many of you have engaged in this sort of practice in some way. if so, i’d love to hear about it! 


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  • Gillian Vellet

    Hello Jen,
    Love your writing and insight on art therapy.

    I have posted a comment on your “kiwi crate blog”.  It would
    be great to speak on skype or email. 

    Best regards, Gillian.

  • thank, gillian. yes, it’d be great to be in touch. feel free to email me by clicking “contact” above. 

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  • foxfirearts

    I made a collage during the no-show times for one suicidal teen, who I never actually met, since she did not come to scheduled appointments. The time was dedicated to her, and it gave me a place to put my feelings of concern and helplessness as I meditated on reaching out and dis/connection. I couldn’t track this person down, but I could give her my attention and care. I kept this collage in my office for years afterwards.

  • k

    a little different from countertransference art?

  • michele murelli

    I have a drawing journal for this purpose, either responding to an experience with a group or individual, or visually pondering a process. A good practice. My clients enjoy seeing my process and it reinforces to them the truth that making art is good medicine.

  • Anke Martin

    OH Thank you for sharing this. I created response art before but unknowingly….reading this makes me smile bright! :)))))

  • theresa

    Thank you for this- I am an art therapist and mother too (my response art these days is more about ‘letting go’…). Your writing feels very calming and grounding. Have you ever thought of facilitating an online response art ‘circle’ for art therapists to support each other?